Since it was first introduced in the 1960s, soy infant formula has played a role in the diets of more than 20 million American infants. Currently, 12 percent of babies who are fed formula consume one made using soy protein. It’s an especially common choice for infants who are allergic to cow’s milk protein.
But health experts debate the merits of soy for babies with allergies since many infants who are allergic to cow’s milk will also show allergic reactions to soy. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), as many as 10 to 14 percent of infants with cow’s milk allergy are also unable to tolerate soy formula . They recommend hydrolyzed protein formulas—special easily-digested products—as the best option for infants with cow’s milk allergies. However a new recent study from the United Kingdom suggests that soy may actually be the better choice .
The study was conducted to determine the economic consequences of treating cow’s milk allergy in infants, particularly as it impacts the National Health Service. Researchers looked at medical records for 1,000 infants, using information entered into a national medical database. Unexpectedly, UK doctors were far more likely to recommend soy formula than hydrolyzed protein preparations for babies with cow’s milk allergy. Sixty percent of infants with cow’s milk allergy were prescribed soy formula compared to only 18 percent for hydrolyzed formula. Most importantly, of the infants who switched to soy formula, only 9 percent continued to show symptoms of allergies, compared to 29 percent of those who were fed hydrolyzed protein formula.
Soy has some other advantages as well. Hydrolyzed protein formulas are costly and they are not palatable to many infants. Medical professionals agree that breast feeding is the best choice for all infants. Infants do not develop allergies to their mother’s milk and are also at lower risk for other types of allergies. No commercial formulas can match the benefits of human milk. But in the United States, more than 65 percent of infants are consuming some type of infant formula. For those who have allergies, soy infant formula may be more valuable than previously thought. It might also be more affordable for families and reduce national medical costs overall.
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2. Sladkevicius E, Nagy E, Lack G, Guest JF: Resource implications and budget impact of managing cow milk allergy in the UK. J Med Econ 13, 119-28 (2010).